Past Perfect - Jane & George Newman’s 1953 Mercedes-Benz W136 170S

Jane & George Newman
Step back in time with Jane and George Newman’s pristine 1953 Mercedes-Benz W136 170S

Serving their country during the cold war, in 1982 Major George Newman, U.S. Army Field Artillery and Major Jane Newman of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps were stationed in West Germany. George was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division in Hanau; Jane  was posted to the 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt. They lived with their two children in the small town of Steinheim, on the Main River.

Love at first sight

Both of the Newmans had long been fascinated by cars.  When they heard of a huge weekly gathering of car owners who brought their own vehicles to sell at the Neckermann Center in Frankfurt, the pair decided to go and take a look. 

Once at the market, George and Jane noticed a large crowd around an old car. Bridging the language barrier with help from bystanders and the car’s owners, the Newmans learned that the car was a 1953 Mercedes-Benz 170S. Although they had no intention to buy anything, the 170S’s two-tone paint and pre-war styling called out to them. It was love at first sight, and they bought the 170S on the spot. The price was 18,000 DM, or U.S. $7,438 – quite a lot to pay for an old car in 1982. 

The pair have never regretted their spontaneous  purchase. 

Years later, in July 2013, the couple was fortunate to find an original three-piece set of fitted Baisch luggage designed specifically for the car’s trunk. The metal labels on the suitcases read “Karl Baisch, Autokofferfabrik, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, Mercedesstr.25.” George jokingly surmises that this single luggage purchase doubled the value of the 170S. Nestled below the suitcases next to the spare tire, an old leather doctor's bag holds the original factory jack and lug wrench.    

During the 39 years that the Newmans have owned this classic Mercedes-Benz, it has accompanied them to many locations, and now has pride of place in their retirement home in Great Falls, Virginia. The 170S has been lovingly garaged and maintained. Astonishingly, the paint, chrome and bodywork remain unchanged from the day they first saw it. The Newmans are proud that they have enjoyed, cared for, and preserved one of the 38,513 examples of the 170S that came off the Stuttgart assembly line in the years after the end of the Second World War. 

The 170S

During a massive bombing campaign in September, 1944, the combined might of the Allied air forces inflicted near-total destruction on the Mercedes-Benz factories in Stuttgart. When the final all-clear sounded, only 15 percent of the Sindelfingen plant was left standing, and the old Untertürkheim works was more than 70 percent destroyed. 

Miraculously, by 1949, using salvaged  dies and presses from the pre-war W153 230 dug out of the rubble, a new model, the 170S began to come off the assembly line. The 170S was the first postwar Mercedes-Benz to carry the suffix “S”– for "Sonder" or "Special" – to denote a superior level of comfort and quality. Mercedes-Benz luxury had returned.

In 1950, automotive reviews and enthusiasts alike unanimously enthused that this new Mercedes-Benz offered a sophisticated driving experience, with a compliant suspension well-suited to rough postwar roads. The light steering and absence of roll were hailed as welcome examples of the 170S carrying on the best tradition of refined pre-war Mercedes-Benz models. 

Both the front and rear independent suspension were redesigned, improving an already tested pre-war layout. The new vehicle had a lower center of gravity. The up-to-date independent suspension, anchored to a strong cruciform frame – built from rigid oval-section tubing based on  a design from the 1930s – provided much better handling. A plunger-type central chassis lubrication system, carried over from pre-war models, was updated to provide expanded bearing areas for the steering and front suspension, with components revised to better retain lubrication.

The M136 inline 4-cylinder engine displaces 1767cc, making  52 horsepower at 4,o00 RPM. The L-head valve arrangement sits beneath a light-alloy cylinder head with a 6.5:1 compression ratio – designed to be compatible with the low octane gasoline common in Europe in the early postwar period. The naturally aspirated single-throat Solex Type 32 carburetor produces a very smooth-running engine at both idle and at speed. 

A smooth four-speed synchromesh transmission is controlled via a gearshift lever on the steering column, a departure from the floor-mounted gearshift of pre-war Mercedes-Benz models. With a wheelbase of 112-inches, the 170S weighs 2,684 pounds. The top speed, and surprisingly, the recommended cruising speed, was 75 MPH. The average fuel consumption is 24 MPG in normal driving. Although the 170S came equipped with hydraulic brakes, stopping quickly to avoid a "Stau" (traffic jam) on the Autobahn would be a huge challenge.

Access to the engine is via a single piece hood which, coupled with its exposed headlamps, is reminiscent of the 1930s. Every engine component is systemically and strategically located for easy access and functionality. The simple, almost beautiful wiring plan and general layout are a testament to fine workmanship in the highest German tradition. 

The car’s water cooling system and thermostat was designed to ensure that the 170S could perform under heavy loads without overheating. To this day, it efficiently heats the cabin when the Newmans take the car out in December to cut and purchase their Christmas tree.

Quality is evident in every detail of the sedan. It is reassuring to see every mechanical component and know what it does and how it works. This 170S is a shade tree mechanic’s dream.

Luxurious interior

Reviews at the time of introduction rated the coachwork and interior as “quality” throughout. The seats were fitted with deep springs, enhancing the smooth ride delivered by the suspension. Wood trim around the windows and on the dash is beautifully made from black finished hardwood, deepening the sense of refinement radiating from all aspects of the 170S. 

Mounted on the 170s’s rear-hinged front door frames, braided cord hand grips  offer assistance as you enter or exit the rear seats. The original wool seat covers and interior door cards with side pockets are in pristine condition, although now covered and protected by brown leather-like ”Hawg-Hide” vinyl. 

Dash instruments are well placed and easy to read. The wind-up mainspring clock worked perfectly for many years but has finally succumbed to old age. However, that is not the case with the Becker tube radio mounted in the center of the dash. While it takes some 20 seconds to warm up, the radio’s three wavelength bands will still get you radio stations directly from Berlin as well as the local news. 

While freely admitting that since buying the car 39 years ago they have only driven it once in one rainstorm, the Newmans testify that the windshield wipers actually work. So does the cigarette lighter, although it is never used. If there is any ash residue in the three ashtrays, it is from the 1950s! 

A unique example

Documentation with the vehicle clearly shows that this Mercedes-Benz W136 170S, chassis number 191018 02459/53, was manufactured in Untertürkheim, West Germany on June 16, 1953. 

The Newman’s 170S also has a special add-on luxury option, a factory-installed Webasto sunroof, measuring 39 inches wide by 39 inches. It unlatches with a single handle and easily slides open, gliding on aluminum rails. 

The standard transmission’s 4-speed shift lever on the column was an added reason for the Newmans to purchase the car: it reminded them both of the Fords and Chevrolets with column shifts that they had learned to drive on in the 1950s. 

Special details lend the car added flair. The chrome eyebrows over the fender-mounted headlights seem to offer observers a flirty hello. The original ADAC German Touring Club emblem mounted on the radiator grille suggests a welcome to the Autobahn, while the chromed scalloped extension on the tailpipe caps the 170S’s elegant front to rear styling. 

Living in West Germany after purchasing the car, the Newmans followed U.S. Forces safety regulations that dictated deactivating the classic mid-chassis trafficator turn signals. The cited reason was the safety of pedestrians who might be hit by a flapping signal arm if the car rounded a corner too tightly. That said, the charming trafficators still work!

In 1986, toward the end of their four-year tour in Germany, Jane and George began planning to return their car back to the United States.  As a first step, they wanted the 170S thoroughly inspected by the most highly recommended Mercedes-Benz service garage in the area.  Their search led them to the Manfred Hollmann Autohaus in Frankfurt.  When the couple drove the venerable 170S into the shop, the car caused an immediate commotion among the staff – especially the more mature shop mechanics.  

In particular, one older gentleman told the couple that he would personally do the inspection and complete any needed work because the 170S was the model that he was first trained on as a young mechanic. His inspection found that the car was in excellent condition and only minor repairs were necessary. At the conclusion of servicing, when he learned that the 170S was to be shipped to the United States, tiny tears glistened clearly in the veteran mechanic’s eyes.        

What’s the true mileage?

Sales documents indicate that the Newmans are the third owners of the 170S. As part of their research for this story, George and Jane took another look at calculating the actual mileage of their 170S. The mileage recorded on the sales document dated August 22, 1982 was 114,000 km. The number was recorded with six digits. However, after looking closely at the odometer, they realize that it records only five digits and now reads 21,670 km. The question was how to reconcile a beginning  total of 114,000 km with the current reading of 21,670. 

It seems that the answer is that 100,000 km were added to the sales form to account for the odometer having rolled over once already. Thus, the actual odometer reading – as opposed to that recorded on the sales document at purchase – was 14,000 km. Subtracting 14,000 from the current reading of 21,670 yields 7,670 km, or 4,755 miles. In sum, the current overall mileage of the car is 121,670 km or 75,435 miles, of which 4,755 miles have been driven in the 39 years the Newmans have owned the car.

The 170S played a vital role in reestablishing Mercedes-Benz in the aftermath of World War II. It is both an honor and a thrill for the Newmans to share this car, both with car aficionados and the casual admirers who give the little 170S a big thumbs-up as the couple drive through their neighborhood. In addition to being a unique example from a poignant period of Mercedes-Benz history, the Newman’s 170S has safely transported the Newmans, their parents, their children and now their grandchildren to remarkable places. 

This stately two-toned holdover from a simpler era stands as an elegant witness to both the Newman’s personal family history and automotive history. As both George and Jane like to say, "Old cars not only take you from point A to B, they also take you back in time."